WHEN NINE-YEAR-OLD REGGIE BUSH TOLD HIS PARENTS THAT HE wanted to play football, they didn't hesitate to let him suit up. Reggie wasn't a bad child, just a wildly energetic one. Teachers had told Reggie's parents that it was hard to get him to sit still--which was no surprise to them. Outside school Reggie was constantly in motion, running around their San Diego town house, dashing down the aisles of the supermarket and bouncing off the sofa. It was time, his parents decided, to let someone else chase him for a while.
No one can quite remember how many touchdowns Reggie scored in his first Pop Warner game--"I think it was five or six," says his mother, Denise Griffin--but his folks do recall one play in which he took a handoff, broke through the line and came face to face with a linebacker. Reggie froze the kid with a quick shoulder fake in one direction and then scooted off in the other on his way to the end zone. "It was one of those moves that you just can't teach," says his stepfather, LaMar Griffin. "It's just something that you either have or you don't. I think that was the moment that it was clear that God had blessed Reggie with some special gifts."
Trojans fans will be forever grateful that after strongly considering Notre Dame and Washington, Bush took those gifts to USC, where opposing defenses haven't had much more luck corralling him than his parents, his teachers or that little linebacker had. A 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore tailback, Bush darted and dashed his way to 2,181 all-purpose yards, the fifth-highest total in the nation, during the Trojans' 12-0 regular season. Though he didn't win the Heisman Trophy ( Bush finished fifth in the voting, 728 votes behind teammate Matt Leinart), he did help propel USC to an even greater reward: the national championship.
Had there been a trophy for the nation's most electrifying player, there's little doubt that Bush would have run away with it. Because of his speed and ability to catch passes out of the backfield, he is often compared with Marshall Faulk, but in some ways he's more similar to, say, Sammy Sosa--the kind of player who creates a buzz of anticipation every time the ball comes his way. "Reggie's a home run hitter," says Trojans coach Pete Carroll. "You don't want to get up and go for a sandwich while he's on the field, because you know that at any moment he might create something spectacular."
Aside from his all-purpose output, Bush's statistics (833 rushing yards, 478 receiving during the regular season) aren't eye-catching, but the way he compiled them was. Some of his most sensational runs in 2004 came at the most crucial moments for USC. He brought the stagnant offense to life in the opener against Virginia Tech with three touchdown receptions, including a 53-yard score that clinched the 24-13 win. Stanford also threw a major scare into the Trojans, but Bush came to the rescue again, twirling, twisting and breaking tackles on a 33-yard, fourth-quarter punt return that set up the decisive touchdown in a 31-28 come-from-behind victory.
The quick-as-a-blink moves that he displayed on many of his big runs came just as instinctively as they did when Bush was nine. Although listed as a tailback, he was likely to turn up almost anywhere in a Trojans formation--in the backfield, in the slot or split wide. Throw in his kick-returning duties, and foes must have wondered whether USC suited up more than one number 5. "At the line of scrimmage I can almost always see the linebackers and defensive backs looking all around for Reggie with this frantic look in their eyes," says Leinart. "I almost want to help them out and say, 'Guys, he's over there. You better hurry up and get somebody on him quick.'"
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow appreciated the chance to deploy Bush in a multitude of ways. "It's like if you're playing chess," Chow says. "All the pieces have a certain way they have to be moved according to the rules, but Reggie is the one piece that can you can move any way you want to. That's how versatile he is. Having someone like him really allows our coaching staff to get creative and use our imagination." It also helped that Bush is a quick study. "At the beginning of the week he always wants to know if we've got anything new for him," says Chow. "He wants the challenge. I don't think he'd mind it if we lined him up at quarterback sometime."
Bush was raised in a religious household with parents who he says simply wouldn't allow him to become arrogant or spoiled. While Reggie was growing up, his mother worked as a deputy, guarding inmates in the Vista County Sheriff's Office, and Griffin is both a security officer and a minister at a nondenominational church in San Diego. (LaMar helped raise Reggie since he was a toddler, and Reggie refers to him as his dad. His biological father lives in Southern California.) "They weren't overly strict, but they were firm," Bush says. "You didn't want to get too far out of line, because in their line of work they both knew how to discipline people."
As Bush grew, so did his athletic success. As a freshman at Helix High in San Diego, he ran the 100 meters in 11.4 seconds, a blistering time for a ninth-grader--especially one wearing tennis shoes. By the time he was a junior, Bush was one of the most sought-after running backs in the nation, but he still had his weekend chores, like taking out the trash and cleaning up his room. LaMar would chase him down if he left for school in the morning without making his bed.
It's because of their guidance that Bush has never done a Terrell Owens-like end zone bugaloo after scoring a touchdown, and it's likely he never will. "If that works for some guys, that's fine," he says. "But that's just not the way I was brought up to do things, calling attention to yourself like that. My parents always taught me that God comes first, school comes second and you put yourself third. I know that if they saw me go wild after scoring, they would have a few things to say to me after the game."